Socially distant: How our divided social networks explain our politics

Findings from the American National Social Network Survey

September 30, 2020 , , ,

Acknowledgments

The Survey Center on American Life of the American Enterprise Institute is grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for its generous support of the American National Social Network Survey.

In addition, the authors would like to thank Samantha Goldstein and Grayson Kubow for their research assistance and support with the design of the report figures, Julia Faulkner for her strategic insights and communications support, Abby Guidera for her detailed oversight and administrative assistance, Rachel Hershberger for careful and efficient editing, and Jennifer Morretta for design and aesthetic expertise.


Executive Summary

Racial segregation among Americans’ most intimate relationships is still common across most racial and ethnic groups. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of white Americans report that their core social network includes only people who are also white. Close to six in 10 (56 percent) black Americans have social networks composed entirely of people who are also black. Less than half of Asian Americans (39 percent) and Hispanic Americans (30 percent) have core social networks that include only members of their own race or ethnic background.[1]

Most partisans have close social ties that reflect their political predispositions. A majority (53 percent) of Republicans report that their core social network is exclusively composed of Donald Trump supporters. The pattern is nearly identical among Democrats (55 percent).

Democrats and Republicans embedded in homogeneous political networks express greater partisan loyalty in their vote preference. Democratic voters with politically homogeneous networks are more likely to prefer Joe Biden than are those whose immediate social circle is more diverse (93 percent vs. 81 percent). Republican voters with homogeneous social networks express more consistent support for Trump than those with greater political diversity do (92 percent vs. 75 percent).

Personal appeals to get politically involved work. Americans who are encouraged to participate in politics are far more likely to do so than are those who are not. Americans who have been encouraged to donate to a political candidate or cause in the past month are roughly four times more likely to report having made a political contribution than are those who were never asked (43 percent vs. 11 percent).

Americans with politically diverse networks report more frequent criticism. More than half (54 percent) of Americans embedded in a politically diverse social network say they have been criticized for their views in the past 12 months, compared to 36 percent of Americans who have politically homogeneous networks. Equal numbers of Democrats (43 percent) and Republicans (43 percent) report that they have been criticized or attacked for expressing a political opinion in the past 12 months.

Americans with politically like-minded social ties are less inclined to rethink their positions. Nearly half (46 percent) of people with politically diverse networks say they question their assumptions when talking to people with different political views. In contrast, only 34 percent of Americans with politically homogeneous networks say the same.

Democrats would be far more upset than Republicans would be if their son or daughter married someone whose views of Trump were at odds with their own. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of Democrats who view Trump unfavorably say they would be at least somewhat upset if their son or daughter married a Trump supporter. In contrast, only 30 percent of Republicans with a favorable view of Trump would find this upsetting.

Most Americans report having heard someone they know personally make a racially insensitive comment or joke. More than half (52 percent) of Americans report that someone they know personally made a remark or joke that was racially insensitive in the past 12 months. About one in five (17 percent) Americans report that this happened within the past week. Fewer than one in three (30 percent) Americans report that this has never happened to them.

There is no greater disagreement between Democrats and Republicans than over the extent to which black people experience discrimination. Ninety-one percent of Democrats say black people face a lot of discrimination in American society, while fewer than half (42 percent) of Republicans agree. Nearly half (47 percent) of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats say white people in the US experience a lot of discrimination.

Most white Americans oppose removing Confederate names from public spaces, but those with racially diverse social networks express much stronger support. Half (50 percent) of white Americans with racially diverse social networks support the removal of Confederate names from streets and public buildings. About only one-third (35 percent) of white Americans with homogeneous networks support removing Confederate names.

Introduction

America is experiencing a heated presidential election, a once in a generation pandemic, and major economic disruption and social unrest. At a time of so many unprecedented events, a sustained effort to document the public’s lives, experiences, and feelings can serve as a valuable resource to policymakers, scholars, and the media. This type of research has yielded important insights about how Americans are navigating ongoing economic and health challenges, struggling with social isolation, coping with evolving childcare, and handling workplace responsibilities.

One limitation of this kind of research, though, is its exclusive focus on how our personal attributes and identities inform our thinking and influence our behavior. But our actions cannot be completely understood without considering the broader array of social constraints and incentives in our lives. By ignoring the rich and complex contours of American social relationships, we risk overestimating the importance of personal characteristics, such as race and ethnicity, gender, and age.

The American National Social Network Survey is designed to help us understand how the nature of personal networks and relationships conditions personal behavior and influences decisions. The immediate social environment exerts a powerful influence over what we do, what we believe, and what we know. Without a grasp of the immediate social context, we will rely too heavily on individual characteristics, which are of course important but do not tell the whole story.

Americans’ tendency to self-select into social environments that are familiar has been well established. Social ties are not developed haphazardly. Rather, the composition of social networks is determined by individual preferences and the broader social milieu. The characteristics of a neighborhood or community significantly determine the types of people one can meet.

But geography is not the only operative constraint in determining the construction of social networks. Social characteristics, such as class, race and ethnicity, and religion, also play a determinative role due to a process of self-segregation whereby institutions created and maintained work to reinforce group identity and beliefs.

In this current moment, what has been less well understood is how social self-segregation—the tendency of Americans to cultivate relationships that reinforce their perspectives and validate their experiences—structures what we think and how we behave. This tendency for people to associate with others of similar backgrounds significantly affects personal behavior. Our goal is to describe the structure of social relationships in the US—the size and diversity of personal social networks—and to better understand how these relationships influence various political and personal perspectives.

American Core Social Networks

Measuring Core Social Networks

When calculating the size and character of American social networks, we must understand the type of information being collected, appreciating its limitations and the corresponding conclusions we can draw from it. The National Social Network Survey replicates an egocentric network design used in the General Social Survey (GSS), which is conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago.[2]

To identify members of a core social network, respondents were required to name people with whom they “discussed important personal matters or concerns” in the previous six months, regardless of the nature of the relationship or the frequency of interaction. The first step in this approach, often referred to as “the name generator,” requires each respondent to record the name or initials of the people who fit this description. Next, respondents were asked to provide relevant social and demographic information—such as gender, age, race and ethnicity, and religious identity—for each previously identified member of their network. (See Topline Questionnaire for a full list of traits.)

The design and implementation of social network battery in this survey differs from the GSS in a few important respects. First, the survey was self-administered online, providing a more efficient and cost-effective way to collect social network data.[3] It also used adaptive question design, in which the results of earlier questions influence the assignment of later ones. The software keeps track of the number and name of each social contact, commonly referred to as “alters,” and the characteristics recorded by the respondent. The use of computerized self-administered questionnaires also dramatically reduces error in collecting social network data.[4]

Second, the current survey allowed respondents to provide up to seven distinct social connections, compared to five allowed in the GSS. To increase accuracy and efficiency, prefilled pull-down menus were offered that allowed respondents to select the relevant category. The names or initials of each member initially recorded by the respondent appeared at the far left of the screen in the same row as the categories to minimize the cognitive effort for respondents and reduce the possibility of error.

Social Network Size

Egocentric social network data are designed to measure intimate connections—the people with whom we have a close personal relationship with and those who regularly influence our lives. These results do not reflect the often wide and varied associations Americans have with each other. A person who does not identify anyone as a member of their core social network may have dozens of social ties and an active social life. To understand the range of incentives and constraints that informs decision-making, structures attitudes, and influences behavior, research has consistently shown that the people who are closest to us exert the most influence. These close social connections are more likely to shape our views, serve as a key conduit for news and information, and provide emotional and material support.

Less than one in five Americans (17 percent) report having no member in their core social network. One-third of the public report having between one to three members as part of their core social network. Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans report having at least four people as members of their core social network, including more than one in five (22 percent) who count at least seven members.

The size of Americans’ core social networks has become more polarized over the past few years. More than twice as many Americans today report having no close social connection than reported this seven years earlier (Table 1). In 2013, only 8 percent of Americans reported that they had no close social contacts—someone with whom they talked about an important issue or concern.[5] At the same time, more people today report having at least five members of their inner social circle than did so in 2013. Thirty-eight percent of Americans have at least five members in their core social network, compared to 30 percent who reported this in 2013.

The rise in the number of Americans reporting they have no one who is part of their core social network is partly attributable to the coronavirus pandemic, which has severely disrupted much of American life, including the frequency and character of social interactions. One in three (33 percent) Americans who say they have no one with whom they have discussed important personal matters in the past six months report that this is due to the coronavirus outbreak. However, the majority say this is not the reason they did not identify any members of their core social network.

Few things are as closely associated with the size of social networks than age and education.[6] Younger Americans report substantially smaller networks than older Americans do. More than one-third (34 percent) of young adults (age 18 to 29) report having no more than a single member of their core social network. Less than one in four (21 percent) seniors report having a social network of this size. More than half (57 percent) of seniors have at least four members of their core social network, compared to 40 percent of young adults.

Americans with less formal education report smaller networks. Thirty-four percent of those with a high school diploma or less have only one person or fewer in their social network, while only 14 percent of Americans with a college education have a network of this size. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) Americans with a four-year college degree have four or more people in their core social network, compared to 39 percent of those with a high school diploma or less.

The Racial Composition of Core Social Networks

Social segregation continues to be an undeniable part of American life. Even as the demographic makeup of the country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, America’s core social networks are characterized by their relative racial homogeneity. But there is wide variation across racial and ethnic groups in the degree of racial and ethnic diversity found in Americans’ core social networks.

White Americans exhibit the greatest degree of social segregation of the racial and ethnic groups. Ninety-two percent of white Americans’ core social networks are also white, non-Hispanic (Table 2). The social networks of other racial and ethnic groups are more diverse but still demonstrate a substantial degree of homogeneity. Seventy-seven percent of black Americans’ social networks are black. Sixty-three percent of Asian Americans’ social networks are composed of Asian Americans, while more than half (53 percent) of Hispanics have social networks that include people of Hispanic identity.

Another way to assess the racial and ethnic diversity in America’s social circle is to look at the number of Americans whose networks include only people of the same race. The results show the same basic pattern: White Americans are more likely to have social networks that do not include members of other racial and ethnic groups. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of white Americans report that their core social network includes only people who are also white. Close to six in 10 (56 percent) black Americans have social networks composed entirely of people who are also black. Notably less than half of Asian Americans (39 percent) and Hispanic Americans (30 percent) have core social networks that include only members of their own race or ethnic background.[7]

Despite ongoing efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity in higher education, in the workplace, and other social, civic, and political institutions, there is little evidence that it is having much effect on the racial composition of America’s intimate social connections. A study conducted in 2013 found a nearly identical lack of diversity in the social networks of Americans.[8] In 2013, three-quarters (75 percent) of white Americans and nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of black Americans reported that their core social networks included only people who shared their racial and ethnic background.

The racial and ethnic segregation found in Americans’ social networks is pronounced among white Americans regardless of educational background, age, or political affiliation. Seventy-three percent of white Democrats and 81 percent of white Republicans report having a core social network composed entirely of other white people. Young white people have more opportunities to forge social connections with people who have different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but the lack of racial diversity is markedly similar across generations.

Seven in 10 (70 percent) white young adults say their social network is exclusively white. Among white seniors, 85 percent say their core social network is entirely white. Educational background also appears to matter little. College-educated white Americans have only slightly more diverse networks than those without any college education do. More than seven in 10 (73 percent) white Americans with a four-year college education have a core social network composed exclusively of white people, compared to 81 percent of white Americans with a high school education or less.

Political Segregation of Americans’ Core Social Networks

In 2020, the social networks of Americans remain socially segregated along several dimensions including politics. Partisans are roughly equally likely to have social networks that reflect their own political predispositions (Table 3). Democrats’ social networks overwhelming include Joe Biden supporters (77 percent), with substantially fewer Donald Trump supporters (18 percent) and third-party candidate supporters (5 percent).

Republican networks are similarly segregated. Three-quarters (75 percent) of Republicans’ social networks include Trump supporters, while 19 percent support Biden and 6 percent support neither candidate. Independents’ social networks are about equally divided between Trump and Biden supporters. Forty-one percent of political independents’ core social networks support Trump, while a similar number (42 percent) support Biden.

Despite the evident political segregation, Americans’ social networks are much more porous with politics than race and ethnicity. A majority (53 percent) of Republicans report that their core social network is exclusively composed of Trump supporters. The pattern is nearly identical among Democrats. More than half (55 percent) of Democrats report that their social network is composed entirely of Biden supporters.

The degree of political diversity among Americans’ social networks varies considerably by education level, but this appears to hold for only Republicans. Republicans with less formal levels of education report much less political diversity than those with higher levels of education do. A majority (61 percent) of Republicans without any college education say their social network is made up entirely of Trump supporters. In contrast, more than four in 10 (47 percent) college-educated Republicans say their social network includes only people who support Trump. Most college-educated Republicans have at least one member of their network who supports Biden.

The pattern is different among Democrats, with higher-educated Democrats reporting similar levels of political diversity as those with fewer years of formal education. A majority (56 percent) of Democrats with a college degree say their social network includes only Biden supporters, while an identical number (56 percent) of Democrats without any college education say their social network is exclusively composed of those who support Biden.

Americans who express a greater interest in politics demonstrate a greater degree of political homophily. A majority (61 percent) of Democrats who are paying close attention to the 2020 election report that their network is exclusive to Biden supporters. In contrast, less than half (43 percent) of Democrats who are not paying close attention to the race say their social network includes only people who support Biden.

Among Republicans, political interest is less closely tied to the political composition of their social networks. Although the differences are not quite as stark as they are among Democrats, Republicans who are following the election closely are not more likely to report that their social network is composed exclusively with Trump supporters than are those who are not following the contest closely (53 percent vs. 58 percent).

The strength of Americans’ partisan attachment is closely related to their social network’s political composition Figure 1). Strong Democrats are much more likely to have a politically uniform social network (65 percent) than those who do not have a strong attachment to the party (47 percent) or who lean toward the Democratic Party (42 percent).

Republicans follow the same pattern. Nearly two-thirds (60 percent) of Republicans with strong ties to the GOP have a homogeneous political network, compared to about half (48 percent) of those without a strong attachment and less than half (40 percent) of those who lean toward the Republican Party.

Black Americans are unique in the level of political homogeneity in their social networks.

Black Americans are unique in the level of political homogeneity in their social networks. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of black Americans report that their core social network is composed entirely of Biden supporters. No other racial or ethnic group demonstrates this level of political homophily. Only 46 percent of Asian Americans and 36 percent of Hispanic Americans have social networks that are exclusive to Biden supporters.

The 2020 Presidential Election

In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by a significant margin among registered voters. Although more recent polls have shown the margin tightening, more than half (51 percent) of registered voters report that they would prefer Biden, while 38 percent say they would prefer Trump if the election were held today. Five percent report that they would prefer another candidate, while 6 percent of registered voters claim they would not vote at all.

There is little evidence of crossover voting at this stage in the campaign. Eighty-five percent of Democratic voters report that they are currently supporting Joe Biden, while 82 percent of Republican voters say they are planning on voting for Trump. Nine percent of Republican voters say they are supporting Biden, while 7 percent of Democratic voters say Trump is their preferred candidate.

Vote preferences vary considerably among partisans depending on the composition of their core social networks (Figure 2). Democratic voters with politically homogeneous networks are more likely to prefer Biden than are those whose immediate social circle is more diverse (93 percent vs. 69 percent). A similar pattern is evident among Republican voters. Republican voters with homogeneous social networks express more consistent support for Trump than those with greater political diversity do (92 percent vs. 78 percent).

Trump continues to perform much better among white voters without a college education, while he struggles with white college-educated voters and voters of color. Eight in 10 (81 percent) black voters and a majority of Hispanic voters (56 percent) report that they are currently supporting Biden, while less than half (42 percent) of white voters say the same. However, there is a significant educational divide among white voters. A majority (55 percent) of white college-educated voters say they favor Biden, while a similarly sized majority (55 percent) of white voters without a college education are supporting Trump.

Biden’s advantage among white college-educated voters varies depending on the racial composition of their social networks. White college-educated voters with racially diverse social networks are more likely to favor Biden than are those whose core social circle includes only other white people (69 percent vs. 52 percent).

Donald Trump retains a considerable advantage over Joe Biden among white Christian voters, while Biden has a large lead among nonreligious voters, nonwhite Christians, and Americans who belong to non-Christian religious traditions. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of white evangelical Protestant voters say they are currently supporting Trump. Trump’s advantage with white mainline Protestant (52 percent vs. 40 percent) and white Catholic voters (49 percent vs. 41 percent) is more modest. In contrast, a majority of black Protestant (85 percent), non-Christian (72 percent), religiously unaffiliated (67 percent), and Hispanic Catholic voters (60 percent) are backing Biden.

The Voting Decision and the Election Outcome

Most Americans say that deciding to vote is not difficult and feel confident in their decision at this stage of the campaign. Nearly three-quarters of registered voters say they are absolutely certain they will vote. Seventeen percent say they are fairly certain, while about one in 10 (9 percent) say they are not too or not at all certain they will vote.

Partisans express similar levels of certainty about if they will vote in 2020. More than three-quarters of Democratic voters (78 percent) and Republican voters (76 percent) say they are absolutely certain they will vote. Only slightly more than half (53 percent) of independent voters say the same.

Irrespective of partisan affiliation, Americans with political networks that are homogeneous express greater certainty about their decision to vote. More than eight in 10 (83 percent) Americans whose core social networks include people with similar political leanings say they are absolutely certain about voting. In contrast, seven in 10 (70 percent) Americans whose core networks include greater political diversity say they feel absolutely certain.

Few Americans say making up their mind who to support was difficult. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of the public say the voting decision this year is easy. Only 22 percent say they are having difficultly deciding whom to support in the 2020 presidential election. Slightly more Americans say their voting choice is easy this year than in past years. In the 2004 presidential election, 71 percent of the public said they were having an easy time deciding whom to support.[9]

Despite Trump’s lagging in the polls nationally, as of August, a majority (62 percent) of Americans believe that it is at least somewhat likely that Donald Trump will be reelected. Less than four in 10 (37 percent) say this is an unlikely outcome.

Republicans remain much more confident in Trump’s chances than Democrats feel about Biden. More than eight in 10 (87 percent) Republicans say it is likely that Trump will be reelected, including nearly half (45 percent) who say this is a very likely possibility. In contrast, a large number of Democrats (44 percent) say Trump’s reelection is likely, compared to 55 percent who say this is not likely to happen.

Democrats’ and Republicans’ political networks shape how they view Trump’s electoral prospects. Republicans who have politically homogeneous networks are more likely than are those with diverse networks to say the prospect of Trump’s reelection is very likely (52 percent vs. 39 percent). Conversely, Democrats whose core political networks are homogeneous are more likely to doubt whether Trump can win in 2020 than are those with politically mixed networks (61 percent vs. 52 percent).

Trump Excites Republicans More Than Biden Animates Democrats

Joe Biden enjoys a considerable advantage over Trump in how he is viewed by the public. Close to half (47 percent) of Americans have a favorable view of Biden, while slightly more than half (53 percent) express an unfavorable opinion of him. Trump is viewed much more negatively. Thirty-seven percent of Americans have a positive opinion of Trump, while 63 percent say their views of Trump are negative. Trump also faces a greater intensity of negative sentiment. Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans have a very unfavorable view of Trump, while 29 percent of the public have a very unfavorable view of Biden.

Despite the likeability deficit Trump faces among the public overall, Republicans express more strongly positive feelings about their nominee than Democrats express about theirs (See Figure 3.) More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Republicans view Trump favorably, while a similar number of Democrats (78 percent) have a favorable view of Biden. However, 40 percent of Republicans have a very favorable view of Trump. Only 26 percent of Democrats have a very favorable view of Biden.

Importantly, regarding views of the opposing candidate, Democrats express stronger feelings of antipathy than Republicans do. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats have a very unfavorable view of Trump, compared to 61 percent of Republicans who express a very unfavorable view of Biden.

Americans with a favorable view of Trump say their feelings are more due to what he has done as president than who he is or what he stands for. More than eight in 10 (82 percent) Americans who view Trump favorably say this is mostly due to his performance in office. Only 18 percent say it is more due to who he is and what he stands for.

In contrast, Americans who dislike Trump are more divided. More than half (51 percent) of those who view Trump negatively say it has more to do with what he stands for than his actions in office. Less than half (48 percent) say their feelings toward Trump are driven by what he has done in office.

The Political Parties: Democrats and Republicans Dislike the Opposing Party More Than They Like Their Own

Americans have a more positive view of the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, but only marginally so. Thirty-seven percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, while close to half (45 percent) the public expresses a positive opinion of the Democratic Party. A majority of Americans have a negative view of both the Republican Party (63 percent) and the Democratic Party (54 percent).

Partisans generally express greater animosity toward the opposing party than affection for their own. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of Democrats have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, but only 23 percent express a very favorable opinion. Eighty-nine percent of Democrats view the GOP negatively, including 55 percent who have a very negative view. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans have positive impression of their party; however about only one-quarter (24 percent) say their view is very positive. More than nine in 10 (92 percent) Republicans view the Democratic Party unfavorably, while nearly two-thirds (64 percent) say they have a very unfavorable opinion.

The immediate political social context appears to influence how Democrats respond to the opposition. Democrats and Republicans who have more politically diverse social circles feel less hostility toward the opposing political party. Democrats with more diverse social connections express less extreme negative views of the Republican Party than those with completely uniform social networks do (63 percent vs. 51 percent). Republicans, similarly, are more likely to express very unfavorable views of the Democratic Party when their networks are politically insular than when they include diverse political perspectives (73 percent vs. 58 percent).

Political Participation and the 2020 Election

Even in an election year, Americans report only modest levels of political engagement across a range of different activities. Only one-third (33 percent) of Americans say they have publicly supported a political campaign on social media. Less than one in four say they have contacted an elected official, donated to campaign or cause (19 percent), or worn an article of clothing that contained a political message (15 percent). Only slightly more than one in 10 Americans report having attended a protest, march, or rally (12 percent) in the past 12 months or displayed a sign on their yard or home supporting a political cause or campaign (12 percent).

At this stage in the 2020 election, Democrats are exhibiting somewhat higher levels of political engagement than Republicans are, although the differences are modest. Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans are to have contacted an elected official (28 percent vs. 21 percent) and to have donated to a political cause or candidate in the past 12 months. And Democrats are roughly twice as likely to have attended a political rally, protest, speech, or campaign event (17 percent vs. 8 percent).

Democrats and Republicans are equally as likely to have displayed a yard sign (13 percent vs. 13 percent) and roughly as likely to wear clothing featuring a political slogan or message (15 percent vs. 18 percent). Notably, Republican men are more likely than other Americans are to wear political clothing; 21 percent report having done so in the past 12 months.

Overall, Americans with social networks that are politically uniform do not demonstrate greater levels of political engagement than those with more diverse political networks do. In fact, among Democrats, those with more politically diverse networks are more likely to have contacted an elected official in the past 12 months than are those whose networks are composed of people who share their politics (35 percent vs. 27 percent).

There are stark generational differences regarding political participation. One-third (33 percent) of seniors say they have contacted an elected official in the past 12 months, compared to 14 percent of young people. Older Americans are also more likely than younger ones are to say they have publicly expressed their support for a political campaign on social media (39 percent vs. 28 percent). Twenty-nine percent of seniors have donated money for political purposes, compared to 17 percent of young people. Similar numbers of younger and older Americans report that they wore a shirt, hat, or piece of clothing with a political message (16 percent vs. 13 percent) or have displayed a sign supporting a political cause or campaign in their yard (12 percent vs. 13 percent).

Personal Requests and Political Participation

For many Americans, political participation, such as making donations or attending political events, is not a regular or routine activity—even in an election year. Political involvement is a more common occurrence among people who have been asked to donate, demonstrate, or participate in some way. But the types of political requests that Americans receive through their friends and relatives varies considerably.

More than half (52 percent) the public say that within the past 12 months someone they know encouraged them to vote in the 2020 election. Twenty-seven percent say that someone they know asked them to contribute money to a political campaign or cause. More than one in five (21 percent) Americans report that in the past 12 months someone they know asked them to attend a political protest or rally.

Although both Democrats and Republicans are paying close attention to the election, Democrats are more likely than Republicans are to report having been asked to engage in various political activities. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) Democrats report that someone they know has encouraged them to vote in the election, while half (50 percent) of Republicans say the same. More than one in four (27 percent) Democrats report that they have been asked to attend a political protest or rally, compared to 17 percent of Republicans. Finally, regarding requests for political donations, Democrats are somewhat more likely to receive these appeals than Republicans are (32 percent vs. 25 percent).

The political makeup of social networks does not appear to affect the likelihood of being asked to participate in political activities. Democrats and Republicans with homogeneous social networks are not more likely to receive requests to participate than are those with politically diverse networks. However, Americans with larger social networks overall are more likely to receive political appeals. Two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans with at least six people in their core social network report that someone they know encouraged them to vote in the presidential election this year. In contrast, only 42 percent of Americans with two or fewer people in their network report having been encouraged to vote.

Perhaps not surprisingly, being asked to participate in politics is associated with higher levels of political participation (Figure 4). Close to half (45 percent) of Americans who were asked to attend a political rally or protest in the past month report having done so. In contrast, only 3 percent of those who have not received an invitation to join a rally or protest say they have participated in one in the past year. Americans who have been encouraged to donate to a political candidate or cause are roughly four times more likely to report having made a political contribution than those who were never asked (43 percent vs. 11 percent).

Political Discussion, Disagreement, and Disaffection

As a number of analyses have shown in recent years, Americans are politically polarized and prone to inhabit ideological “bubbles.” Americans consume media that confirms their political predispositions and restricts relationships to people who share them. But how does the political composition of Americans’ intimate social relationships structure political beliefs and influence behavior?

Political Self-Expression and Self-Doubt

The political discourse is frequently dominated by the most uncompromising voices, but most Americans express at least some doubts about their political positions. When asked whether they ever question their own political views, more than half (51 percent) of Americans say they sometimes question whether their views are the right ones. Close to half (47 percent) report that they hardly ever second-guess their political positions.

There is considerable ideological variation in Americans’ confidence in their political views. Over half (54 percent) of Republicans, and 58 percent of Trump supporters, say they hardly ever question whether their political views are the right ones, compared to 44 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Biden supporters. A majority of Democrats (55 percent) and political independents (52 percent) say they question their political positions from time to time.

People with diverse political networks are more likely to express doubt about their views, but the impact is not constant across partisan lines. Overall, a majority (57 percent) of Americans whose immediate social circle is made up of people with a range of political views say they sometimes doubt whether their own are correct. In contrast, less than half (47 percent) of people in homogeneous political networks say the same.

However, the composition of political networks appears to more strongly affect Republicans than Democrats. Democrats with politically diverse networks are not much more likely to express political self-doubt than are those surrounded by politically like-minded people (58 percent vs. 53 percent). Among Republicans, the differences are more pronounced (52 percent vs. 36 percent).[10]

Educational experience is strongly associated with feelings of political certainty and doubt. In general, Americans with higher levels of formal education report more political self-doubt. A majority (63 percent) of Americans with a postgraduate level of education and nearly six in 10 (58 percent) Americans with four-year degrees say they sometimes question whether their political views are right. In contrast, less than half of Americans with some college experience (48 percent) or none at all (44 percent) say the same.

Another measure of confidence in one’s beliefs is the degree to which people share their opinion about something even if they do not know much about it. About one-third (36 percent) of Americans agree with the statement, “Even if I do not know much about a subject, I feel it’s important to share my opinion.”[11] More than six in 10 (63 percent) Americans say they do not feel compelled to share their opinion about something they do not know much about.

There is consensus across the political spectrum. More than six in 10 Democrats (62 percent) and Republicans (67 percent) reject the idea of sharing their views on topics they are largely ignorant about. Political network composition also appears to have little or no influence on views about speaking out on subjects without much knowledge.

Men’s and women’s views are largely similar. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of men and 60 percent of women do not believe it is necessary to share their views on topics they know little about.

Americans with lower levels of formal education feel more inclined to share their views on topics they know little about than do those with higher levels of education. Twenty-two percent of Americans with postgraduate education and 27 percent of college graduates say they feel it is important to express their opinions even on subjects they know little about. Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans with no college education agree.

Are Americans Too Easily Offended, or Should People Be Careful with Their Language?

If Americans exhibit a particular uniformity when sharing opinions about things they do not fully understand, they vary considerably over how careful people should be to avoid offending others with the language they use. Overall, Americans appear fairly evenly divided. Forty-seven percent say people should be careful not to offend others, while 52 percent say too many people are too easily offended these days. But large differences exist along lines of race and political affiliation.

Republicans generally feel it is less important to be cautious with language to avoid the possibility of causing offense. About only one in five (21 percent) Republicans believe people need to be more careful when they speak, compared to 41 percent of independents and 68 percent of Democrats. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of Republicans say too many people are easily offended, a sentiment shared by a majority (58 percent) of independents and nearly one in three (31 percent) Democrats.

White Americans are less concerned about the need to exercise care in speaking to avoid causing offense than people of color are, but there are important differences in how pressing a problem this is perceived to be among black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. Only four in 10 (40 percent) white Americans say people need to be more careful in the language they use, compared to 72 percent of black Americans, 65 percent of Asian Americans, and 51 percent of Hispanics.

There are only modest differences in views about the use of language among Americans with different types of social networks. More than half (54 percent) of Americans with racially diverse social networks say it is important to be careful about the language people use, a view shared by 45 percent of those who have no people of color in their immediate social circle.

Political Discourse and Disagreement in the US

Political disagreement is common in the United States, but these arguments are much more common in families than among strangers. Nationally, 58 percent of Americans say they have disagreed with family and friends in the past 12 months, compared to about one-third (34 percent) who say they have disagreed over politics in the past year with someone they do not know well.

Political disagreement is more common among Democrats and liberals than conservatives and Republicans, whether it is among friends and family members or strangers (Figure 6). More than six in 10 (62 percent) Democrats, including 69 percent of liberal Democrats, say they had a political disagreement with a friend or family member in the past 12 months, compared to 58 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of conservative Republicans.

The partisan gap is even wider regarding arguments with strangers. Close to four in 10 (39 percent) Democrats, and nearly half (46 percent) of liberal Democrats, say they had a political disagreement with someone they did not know well, an experience shared by 32 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of conservative Republicans.

People with diverse networks are more likely to report having political disagreements than the average person. Overall, more than seven in 10 (71 percent) Americans with politically diverse networks say they have had a political disagreement with a friend or family member in the past 12 months, while fewer (56 percent) of those with social networks in which all members share the same political perspective say they have had this experience.

This pattern is consistent among Republicans and Democrats. More than seven in 10 Democrats (75 percent) and Republicans (71 percent) with politically diverse networks say they have had disagreements with family and friends over the past year, while substantially fewer Democrats (59 percent) and Republicans (54 percent) with homogeneous networks report having had a political argument. Notably, Democrats with diverse political networks are also more likely to argue with strangers than are those whose social circle shares similar political opinions (48 percent vs. 37 percent). Republicans with diverse social networks are not much more likely to have political disagreements with people they do not know well than are those with politically like-minded networks (36 percent vs. 32 percent, respectively).

Men are more likely to have arguments about politics than are women—whether with family members or strangers (Figure 5). More than six in 10 (61 percent) men and 55 percent of women say they had a political disagreement with a friend or family member in the past 12 months. There is a wider gender gap with having arguments with strangers. Forty percent of men and only 28 percent of women say they had a political disagreement with someone they did not know well.

What about the experience of being attacked or criticized for one’s political views? Social media conveys the impression that this is an everyday affair for most people, but 41 percent of Americans say they have been subjected to criticism in the past year. About one-quarter (22 percent) say they have been criticized for their political views in the past month. Nearly half (45 percent) of Americans report that they have never been criticized for expressing a political opinion.

The experience of being criticized for voicing a political position is roughly the same regardless of political affiliation. Forty-three percent of Democrats and an identical number of Republicans (43 percent) report that they have been criticized or attacked for expressing a political opinion in the past 12 months.

For those in politically diverse networks, though, it is more common. More than half (53 percent) of Americans embedded in a politically diverse social network say they have been criticized for their views in the past 12 months (Figure 6). Only 36 percent of Americans who have politically homogeneous networks say the same.

The experience of being criticized is also a function of the frequency Americans express their political opinions, particularly on social media platforms. A majority (59 percent) of Americans who report having publicly expressed support for a political campaign on social media say they have been criticized in the past year, compared to 32 percent of Americans who have not done this.

How does exposure to political diversity and the experience of having political disagreements affect our assumptions and opinions? For most Americans, disagreement over political matters tends to make them double down on their own views and more inclined to see differences than commonalities. Only 37 percent of Americans say they come to find they have more in common with the people they disagree with. Sixty-one percent say they find they have less in common. These findings are similar to those in a Pew 2018 survey that showed 31 percent of Americans finding more common ground and 63 percent less.[12]

In this case, having a politically diverse network does not change things much. Sixty percent of people with politically diverse networks say they find they have less in common with those with whom they disagree, compared to 63 percent of people in homogeneous networks. These results are also similar across partisan and ideological divides.

Part of the reason political disagreement and discussion may produce less common ground is that it tends to reinforce people’s assumptions rather than encouraging them to review or revise them. Americans say that when they have conversations with people who hold different political views, they are more likely to become more certain in their views than they are to question their assumptions (58 percent vs. 39 percent).

There is interesting partisan variation on this question. Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans are to say that when they talk with people whose political views are different, they are inclined to reconsider their assumptions (41 percent vs. 33 percent). But a majority of Democrats (57 percent) and Republicans (65 percent) say when they confront discordant political information their views tend to harden.

Here, social network diversity plays a much more important role in how people respond to politically dissonant information (Figure 7). Nearly half (46 percent) of people with politically diverse networks, including 43 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats, say they question their assumptions when talking to people with different political views. In contrast, only 34 percent of Americans with politically homogeneous networks—and 28 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of Democrats with homogeneous networks—say they are likely to rethink their position when discussing politics with people who have different opinions.

Compromise and Competition in Politics

Americans hold conflicting views about the possibility for compromise and common ground in politics today. Most Americans express a willingness to compromise even on the issues they care the most about, but there is a sense that the political system encourages a winner-take-all approach. Almost eight in 10 (79 percent) say it is possible to compromise on issues they care about to find common ground. But nearly half (48 percent) the public say that in politics today, if “one side wins, the other loses.”[13] About only half (51 percent) say it is possible for everyone to get what they want in politics today. Part of this conflict may stem from people seeing themselves as capable of compromise, but the political system frequently offers only binary choices that are framed as either the winning or losing side.

There is a unique racial divide in views about whether the political system offers something for everyone or is structured to be winner-take-all. Nearly six in 10 black (59 percent) and Asian Americans (58 percent) believe that in politics today, everyone can get something they want, a view shared by about half of Hispanic (52 percent) and white Americans (49 percent).

Dealing with Political Differences Is Stressful for Many Americans

Politics has grown more acrimonious and personal in recent years; reaching a consensus and finding common ground have become more difficult. Americans are taking greater pains to insulate themselves from people with whom they disagree. When Americans happen to discuss politics with people whose perspective differs from their own, they often find it distressing. A majority (57 percent) of Americans say that when they discuss political issues with people whose views are at odds with their own, they find it stressful and frustrating. More than four in 10 (42 percent) say they find it interesting and informative. Last year, Americans were about equally likely to say talking with people with politically opposing views was informative and interesting as it was stressful and frustrating (48 percent vs. 50 percent).[14]

Partisan differences are modest but notable. Democrats are generally more likely than Republicans are to find it stressful talking with people whose views differ from their own. More than six in 10 (61 percent) Democrats, including two-thirds (67 percent) of liberal Democrats, say talking politics with people who do not share their views is frustrating and stressful, a view shared by 54 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of conservative Republicans. Notably, independents are about as likely to say talking with people who do not share their political views is informative and interesting as to say it is stressful and frustrating.

Americans with politically diverse social connections are not any more likely than those with politically homogeneous networks are to say it is stressful to talk with people who do not share their views. Roughly equal numbers of Americans with more politically diverse networks (57 percent) and those with less diversity in their social network (60 percent) say they find talking to people with different political opinions stressful and frustrating.

For many Americans, engaging their political opponents in dialogue is difficult because of the belief that a person’s political positions signify something more than just politics.[15] Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans believe that “a person’s political views say a lot about what kind of person they are.”[16] More than one-third (36 percent) of Americans disagree.

There is general agreement across the political spectrum that a person’s political views say a lot about their character. Two-thirds (67 percent) of Democrats and more than six in 10 (62 percent) Republicans agree that a person’s political views say a lot about who they are. A majority (54 percent) of political independents also agree.

Previous research has shown that Americans have increasingly taken exception to having a family member date or marry someone from an opposing party.[17] When asked how upset someone would be if their son or daughter married a supporter or opponent of President Trump (conditioned on the respondent’s support or opposition for Trump), a significant number of Americas say this would engender substantial concern. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans say they would be at least somewhat upset if their son or daughter married someone whose view of Trump differed from their own. More than half (52 percent) of Americans say this would not be a problem for them.

Concerns about having someone join the family with an opposing view of Trump is a much greater concern for Democrats than Republicans (Figure 8). More than two-thirds (69 percent) of Democrats who view Trump unfavorably say they would be at least somewhat upset if their son or daughter married a Trump supporter. In contrast, only 30 percent of Republicans with a favorable view of Trump report that they would be upset if their child married someone who disliked Trump.

One possible explanation for the divergent reactions of Democrats and Republicans may arise from Democrats more strongly disliking Trump than Republicans like him. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats have a very unfavorable view of Trump, while only 40 percent of Republicans have a very favorable opinion of him.

Americans who have a politically diverse network express fewer objections than do those whose network is politically uniform. Only 45 percent of people with diverse political networks would be upset if their child married someone who did not share their opinion of Trump, compared to 56 percent of those in politically homogeneous networks. The importance of social network composition is even more evident among Democrats. Sixty-nine percent of Democrats who have a negative view of Trump and a politically homogeneous network say they would be upset if their child married a Trump supporter, while 52 percent of Democrats with a diverse political network express the same level of concern.

American Optimism

Today, Americans are less optimistic than they were a few years ago that they can achieve the American dream. However, the majority of the public remains hopeful about the best days being ahead of us, the future of the American economy, and the possibility of starting a business.

Fewer Americans Are Living the American Dream

Amid a raging pandemic that has claimed close to 200,000 lives, a battered economy, and ongoing concerns about public safety and racial tensions, optimism in the future has declined precipitously. Twenty-nine percent of Americans say they have already achieved the American dream, while 42 percent say they are on their way to achieving it. Twenty-eight percent of Americans say the American dream is out of reach.

In the wake of the raft of economic challenges many American families face, faith in the American dream has plunged, although most Americans still believe in the idea (Figure 9). As recently as 2018, four in 10 (40 percent) Americans said they were living the American dream, just as many (40 percent) said they were on their way to making it a reality, and only 18 percent said it was out of reach for them.[18]

Across all segments of American society, belief in the possibility of the American dream has declined, but some groups experienced a more dramatic drop than others did (Figure 10). Before the pandemic, Americans with postgraduate degrees had been most likely to report they had achieved the American dream. Sixty-eight percent of Americans with postgraduate degrees said they were living the American dream, while only 43 percent say this today. In 2018, Americans without any college education were more likely to say they were already living the American dream than said it was out of reach (32 percent vs. 26 percent). Now Americans without any college education are more likely to say the American dream is out of reach than say they are living it (35 percent vs. 20 percent).

In 2018, nearly half (45 percent) of white Americans and close to one-third of Hispanic (32 percent) and black Americans (31 percent) said they were living the American dream.[19] Today, the picture looks different. About only one-third (34 percent) of white Americans and less than one in four (23 percent) Hispanics say they are living the American dream. The number of black Americans who say they have achieved the dream has been cut in half over the past two years to 15 percent—a 16-point drop. The number of black Americans who now say the American dream is not possible for them has doubled since 2018 (from 18 percent to 36 percent).

The partisan gap in views of the American dream have increased even as faith in the American dream has declined across the political spectrum. More than four in 10 (41 percent) Democrats and nearly half (49 percent) of Republicans said they had achieved the American dream in 2018. Democrats have experienced a steeper drop in their belief than Republicans have since then.

Today, about only one-quarter (24 percent) of Democrats, compared to 39 percent of Republicans, say they are living the American dream. Independents are not much less likely to say they are living the American dream today than they were in 2018 (20 percent vs. 24 percent). However, 38 percent of independents now say the American dream is completely out of reach for them, a sizable increase since 2018 when only 25 percent expressed this view.

No age group has witnessed a more dramatic shift in their belief in the American dream than have those who are middle age (age 50 to 64). In 2018, more than half (53 percent) of middle-aged Americans said they had achieved the American dream. That now stands at just 33 percent. Young people have also experienced a notable drop. Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of young adults said they had achieved the American dream in 2018, while only 9 percent say this today.

In contrast, seniors have experienced a more modest decline. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of seniors said they were living the American dream in 2018. A majority (56 percent) say they are today.

Americans Remain Hopeful About Future of the Country

Despite the decline in the number of Americans who say they are currently living the American dream, most of the public still believes they have achieved it or are on their way. Americans are also more optimistic than pessimistic about the country’s future. Fifty-four percent of Americans believe the nation’s best days lie ahead, while 46 percent believe our best days are in the past.

In stark contrast to perspectives on the American dream, people of color are among the most optimistic about the future of the country. A majority of Asian (66 percent), black (59 percent), and Hispanic Americans (57 percent) are more optimistic about the country’s future. White Americans are split over whether America’s best days are ahead or behind (51 percent vs. 49 percent).

No group is more pessimistic about America’s future than are white evangelical Protestants. Fewer than half (46 percent) of white evangelical Protestants believe the country’s best days lie ahead. A majority (54 percent) say the country’s best days are in the past. White mainline Protestants are divided over whether America’s best days are ahead or behind (50 percent vs. 50 percent). A majority of white Catholics (54 percent), religiously unaffiliated Americans (54 percent), black Protestants (58 percent), members of non-Christian religions (60 percent), and Hispanic Catholics (66 percent) believe that that the country’s best days are ahead.

Finally, despite the stark partisan differences of perspectives on the economy and the country, they play no role in conditioning views here. Regardless of political affiliation, most Americans express more optimism than pessimism. Fifty-six percent of Democrats say the country’s best days are ahead, while 53 percent of Republicans say the same.

The National Economy: Getting Worse Before It Gets Better

A couple months before the presidential election, Americans are more pessimistic about the short-term economic situation. More than four in 10 (41 percent) Americans say over the next 12 months the national economy will get worse. About one-third (32 percent) say it will get better, and roughly one-quarter (26 percent) say it will stay about the same.

Republicans and Democrats have different perceptions of the economic outlook over the next year. Nearly half of Democrats (49 percent) and nearly as many independents (44 percent) say the US economy is going to get worse over the next 12 months, a view shared by only 28 percent of Republicans. Nearly half (48 percent) of Republicans say they believe the economy will improve in the next year, while half as many Democrats (24 percent) and independents (26 percent) express this view.

Optimism and Entrepreneurship: Starting a Business

Despite the large number of small businesses that have closed because of the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, Americans remain upbeat about the possibility of starting their own business. A majority of Americans (56 percent) believe anyone can start a local business. Forty-three percent say starting a business is something only people with money and connections can do.

Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats are to say anyone can start a business (72 percent vs. 47 percent). Over half of Democrats (51 percent) say a person needs money and connections to start a business, while only 28 percent of Republicans express this view.

Discrimination, Race, and Criminal Justice

Americans generally believe discrimination is a common experience for many groups in the US. However, perceptions differ considerably among Americans by race and ethnicity and political affiliation.

At least six in 10 Americans say black Americans (71 percent), Muslims (71 percent), transgender people (70 percent), Hispanics (66 percent), and gay and lesbian people (65 percent) experience a lot of discrimination in American society. The public is divided over whether Asian people (50 percent) and Jewish Americans (49 percent) face a large amount of discrimination. Notably, about one-third of Americans say white people (30 percent) and Christians (29 percent) face a lot of discrimination in the US today.

Perceptions of discrimination vary considerably among the public along lines of race and ethnicity and education background. White Americans are less likely to believe that black people and Hispanic people experience a great deal of discrimination in the US. Fifty-eight percent of white Americans say Hispanics face a lot of discrimination, compared to 79 percent of Hispanics and 84 percent of black Americans. Similarly, fewer white Americans (63 percent) than Hispanic (79 percent) and black Americans (94 percent) say black people confront a lot of discrimination in American society.

White Americans are less likely to say Asian people experience a great deal of discrimination than black or Hispanic Americans do (44 percent vs. 59 percent and 56 percent). About four in 10 (38 percent) white Americans say white people experience a considerable degree of discrimination, although sentiments vary significantly by education level. White Americans without a four-year college degree are much more likely to believe white people face a lot of discrimination than are those with a four-year college education (45 percent vs. 26 percent).

Regarding perceptions of discrimination in the US, Democrats and Republicans express starkly contrasting views. In general, Democrats believe discrimination is a more common experience for many groups in the country. More than eight in 10 Democrats say transgender people (88 percent), Hispanics (86 percent), Muslims (86 percent), and gay and lesbian people (84 percent) face a considerable amount of discrimination. A majority of Democrats says Asian people (67 percent) and Jewish people (59 percent) are subject to a lot of discrimination.

Republicans express far less certainty about the existence of discrimination. A majority (54 percent) of Republicans say Muslims face a lot of discrimination, while less than half say the same about transgender people (48 percent), gay and lesbian people (41 percent), Hispanics (39 percent), Jews (36 percent), and Asian people (26 percent).

There is no greater disagreement between Democrats and Republican than over the extent to which black people experience discrimination in the US (Figure 11). Ninety-one percent of Democrats say black people face a lot of discrimination in American society, while fewer than half (42 percent) of Republicans agree. A majority (57 percent) of Republicans say black people do not experience a lot of discrimination in the US. Importantly, the Republicans’ perspectives diverge sharply by generation. A majority (57 percent) of young Republicans say black people experience a great deal of discrimination, compared to 42 percent of senior Republicans.

Although Republicans are generally less likely to believe discrimination is a common occurrence in American society, there are a couple important exceptions. Republicans are more likely than Democrats are to say white people (47 percent vs. 17 percent), Christians (44 percent vs. 17 percent), and evangelical Christians (38 percent vs. 20 percent) are subject to a great deal of discrimination in their daily lives.

Racially Insensitive Jokes and Comments

Over their daily lives, many Americans report having heard comments or jokes that they judge as being racially insensitive. More than half (52 percent) of Americans report that in the past 12 months someone they know personally made a remark or joke that was racially insensitive. About one in five (17 percent) Americans report that this happened in the past week. Fewer than one in three (30 percent) Americans report that this has never happened to them.

The degree to which Americans are exposed to racially insensitive comments or jokes varies widely between racial and ethnic groups. More than half of white Americans (54 percent) say that in the past 12 months they had someone they know personally make a joke or comment that was racially insensitive. Black and Hispanic Americans are somewhat less likely to report having heard racially insensitive comments or jokes in the past six months (43 percent and 40 percent), although a significant number still do.

For nonwhite Americans, having more racially diverse social networks is associated with increased exposure to racially insensitive comments and jokes.[20] About half of black (58 percent) and Hispanic (50 percent) Americans with racially diverse social networks say that in the past 12 months someone they know made a racially insensitive comment or joke, compared to 36 percent of black and 39 percent of Hispanic Americans with networks that included only people of their own racial or ethnic background.

The Problem of Discrimination in the US

More Americans believe that the refusal to recognize or acknowledge discrimination is a larger problem for the country than is people seeing discrimination where it does not exist. Close to six in 10 (58 percent) say people not seeing discrimination where it exists is more pressing of a problem than is people claiming discrimination does not exist (42 percent). There is widespread disagreement among the public about which is a greater challenge for the country along lines of race and political affiliation.

More than half (51 percent) of white Americans say people claiming nonexistent discrimination is a greater problem, while roughly as many (48 percent) say the refusal to recognize discrimination is the larger problem. The majority of Hispanics (65 percent) and black Americans (88 percent) say not acknowledging discrimination serves as a greater problem for the US. But there are significant disparities between the views of whites with a college degree and those without. A majority (57 percent) of whites without a four-year college degree say people seeing discrimination where it does not exist is a the more important concern, while only 41 percent of whites with a college education agree.

Americans with racially diverse social networks express greater concern about the problem of discrimination. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans with racially diverse networks say people not seeing discrimination is a bigger problem for the country than is people seeing it where none exists, a view shared by fewer (55 percent) Americans whose social networks do not include anyone of a different race or ethnicity.

On the question of what presents a greater problem for the US—the nonrecognition of discrimination or claims of nonexistent discrimination—Democrats and Republicans express nearly diametrically opposite views. More than eight in 10 (82 percent) Democrats say not acknowledging discrimination is a more pressing problem in the country, while nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Republicans say claiming discrimination where none exists is the larger problem.

Lackluster Support for Affirmative Action and Mixed Views of Athletic Protests

Despite the widespread perception that black Americans face a great deal of discrimination in the US, most Americans do not support policies or programs to provide race-based preferences in higher education. Less than four in 10 (38 percent) Americans say they favor giving black people and other minorities preference in college admissions to make up for past inequalities. Nearly six in 10 (61 percent) Americans oppose this idea.

There is near universal opposition to affirmative action among Republicans, while Democratic support is more tepid. Nearly nine in 10 (88 percent) Republicans oppose affirmative action policy in higher education, including more than half (55 percent) who strongly oppose it. Less than six in 10 (58 percent) Democrats favor an affirmative action policy that would grant preference to black people and other minority groups, but a significant minority (41 percent) say they oppose it.

Affirmative action remains deeply unpopular among white Americans but garners support among most people of color (Figure 12). Only one in four (25 percent) white Americans favor giving black Americans and other minorities preference in college admissions, while a majority of Hispanic Americans (53 percent), Asian Americans (62percent), and black Americans (75 percent) express support for the policy.

Public views on affirmative action vary considerably by age, but even among young people, views of affirmative action are closely divided, while seniors remain largely opposed. Less than one-third (31 percent) of seniors favor affirmative action in college admissions, while more than two-thirds (68 percent) oppose it. In contrast, more than half (52 percent) of young adults express support for affirmative action policies in admissions, while 46 percent express opposition to the policy.

The lack of support for affirmative action programs among whites may stem from concerns that these policies hurt them. More than four in 10 (42 percent) Americans overall and nearly half (49 percent) of white Americans agree that efforts to increase diversity almost always come at the expense of whites. More than one in five Asian (21 percent) and black Americans (22 percent) and more than one-third (36 percent) of Hispanic Americans also agree that efforts to increase diversity are ultimately zero-sum.

Among whites, this view is more common among those with less racial and ethnic diversity in their social networks. Half (50 percent) of white Americans who report no people of color in their social network believe white people are harmed by efforts to increase diversity, while 40 percent of whites with more diverse social networks agree.

The public is more divided over whether it is appropriate for professional athletes to protest by kneeling during the national anthem. About half (49 percent) of Americans say professional athletes should be required to stand during the national anthem at sporting events, while roughly as many (51 percent) disagree.

White Americans are significantly more likely than Americans of color are to say professional athletes should be required to stand during the anthem. A majority (56 percent) of white Americans agree, compared to less than half of Hispanics (46 percent), Asian Americans (25 percent), and black Americans (21 percent). However, white Americans with more racially diverse networks more strongly support this requirement than those whose networks lack any diversity do (57 percent vs. 44 percent).

The Meaning and Removal of Confederate Monuments

Americans are more likely to see monuments to Confederate soldiers as symbols of southern pride than symbols of racism, a view that has remained fairly stable over the past few years.[21] A majority (55 percent) of Americans say Confederate monuments are symbols of southern pride, while 43 percent say they are symbols of racism.

Perspectives on Confederate monuments vary considerably among the public by race, but not region. About two-thirds (66 percent) of white Americans say monuments to Confederate soldiers are more expressions of southern pride than racism (Figure 13). Nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) black Americans disagree, saying Confederate monuments are expressions of racism.

A majority (58 percent) of Asian Americans also believe monuments of Confederate soldiers are expressions of racism. Hispanic Americans are roughly divided, with about equal numbers saying monuments are symbols of southern pride (47 percent) or symbols of racism (52 percent). Notably, there are no apparent regional differences in views. White northeasterners are about as likely as white southerners are to say Confederate monuments serve as symbols of southern pride (68 percent vs. 69 percent).

White Americans’ perspectives on Confederate monuments differ substantially by the racial composition of their social networks. White Americans whose social networks include only white people are more likely to say Confederate monuments serve to symbolize southern pride, while those with diverse networks are less likely to give that response (68 percent vs. 54 percent). More than four in 10 white Americans with racially diverse social networks say monuments of Confederate soldiers signify racism (43 percent).

Americans express some ambivalence about changing the names of streets, schools, military bases, and other public buildings that are named after Confederate leaders. Forty-five percent of the public support measures that would rename public buildings and other institutions, while more than half (53 percent) oppose the idea.

The issue of removing the names of Confederate leaders from public places also divides the country along racial lines. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of black Americans and 69 percent of Asian Americans are in favor of removing the names of Confederate leaders from schools, military bases, and other public places. Only 36 percent of white Americans favor it. Hispanic Americans are nearly evenly divided, with 51 percent expressing support for the idea and 49 percent expressing opposition to it.

For white Americans, their immediate social environment strongly predicts feelings about removing Confederate names from public spaces. Half (50 percent) of white Americans with racially diverse social networks support the removal of Confederate names from streets and public buildings. In contrast, about only one-third (35 percent) of white Americans with homogeneous networks support removing Confederate names.

Criminal Justice: Police Treatment of Black Americans and the Death Penalty

Most Americans do not believe police officers are colorblind when it comes to the treatment of black people and other minorities. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) Americans say police officers do not treat “Blacks and other minorities” the same as white people. Forty percent of the public disagrees.[22]

Racial divisions are evident in views about police treatment of people of color, but even among white Americans, fewer than half believe that police officers treat all people equally (Figure 14). A majority of black (87 percent), Asian (75 percent), and Hispanic (64 percent) Americans disagree that police officers treat black people and other minorities the same as white people. White Americans are divided: Less than half (48 percent) say police officers treat everyone equally regardless of race or ethnicity, while more than half (51 percent) say they do not.

Views about police treatment of people of color are sharply divided along partisan lines. More than seven in 10 (71 percent) Republicans believe police treat all Americans the same regardless of race or ethnic background, while 83 percent of Democrats disagree. However, Democrats express stronger feelings about the issue than Republicans do.

Despite increased attention to the issue of police killings of African Americans, public opinion has remained largely stable in recent years. A majority (56 percent) of the public believes that recent killings of African Americans by police are part of a broader pattern, while 43 percent say they are isolated incidents.

Perspectives about police treatment of African Americans are sharply polarized between Democrats and Republicans. About eight in 10 (82 percent) Democrats say killings of African Americans by law enforcement are part of a larger pattern, while nearly as many (79 percent) Republicans say killings are isolated incidents.

White Americans are unique in their views about the nature of African American deaths at the hands of law enforcement. A majority of black (91 percent), Asian (73 percent), and Hispanic Americans (65 percent) say the deaths of African Americans by police are part of broader pattern. A majority (53 percent) of white Americans say police killings of African Americans are isolated cases. Close to half (45 percent) of white Americans disagree.

Views among white Americans vary only modestly between those with more or less diverse social networks. A majority of white Americans with racially diverse social networks say deaths of African Americans by police are part of a larger pattern of behavior, while fewer than half (46 percent) of white Americans whose networks include only white people say the same.

However, network diversity appears to matter more for college-educated white Americans. White college-educated Americans who have no diversity in their social networks are divided over whether deaths of African Americans by police are an isolated incident (46 percent) or part of a broader pattern (53 percent). Among white college-educated Americans with diverse networks, the overwhelming majority (71 percent) say this is part of a broader pattern.

Rising Opposition to the Death Penalty

Life without a chance of parole is the preferred punishment for people who are convicted of murder over the death penalty. A majority (57 percent) of Americans say they would prefer that people convicted of murder serve life in prison without the chance of parole rather than receive the death penalty. More than four in 10 (41 percent) Americans say they favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Over the past 20 years, American support for the death penalty has declined, while support for life sentences has risen. In January 2000, the public was more evenly divided on the issue, with close to half (48 percent) in favor of the death penalty, while 43 percent expressed support for life without the possibility of parole.[23]

There is consensus among Americans of different racial and ethnic backgrounds on the preferred punishment for people convicted of murder. A majority of black (70 percent), Asian (60 percent), Hispanic (58 percent), and white (54 percent) Americans prefer life in prison over the death penalty. Close to half of white Americans say they prefer the death penalty.

Conclusion

For those concerned about the unrelenting rise in political polarization, the stubborn divide in how we perceive issues of race, and a general lack of empathy and understanding pervading much of the political discourse, this report offers some hope. Americans are not fated by their personal circumstances, biology, or background to believe or behave a certain way. Much of what we do is shaped by those around us. Americans who have more politically diverse social networks express more openness to compromise and are less bound to their own beliefs.

Racial and ethnic diversity in Americans’ social networks makes one more sensitive to race issues. Notably, white Americans with racially diverse social networks appear more attuned to the perspectives of Americans of color. That does not mean that the act of befriending someone of a different race or political background will solve our social problems. It is almost certainly true that Americans predisposed to be more open-minded would seek out these types of relationships. And Americans with more diverse social networks are more likely to experience uncomfortable conversations or even offensive comments.

It is also something that is not easily accomplished. Research has shown people are hardwired to seek out people who are similar to themselves. But it seems inarguable that opportunities to learn about the experiences and perspectives of people whose lives are different from our own would considerably benefit society.

This is not a new idea, but this unique methodology allows us to better identify the way our social environment influences various attitudes and experiences. The more we are able to learn from people we trust that not everyone thinks and acts the way we do, the better equipped we will be to overcome the social, economic, and political challenges that await us.

About the Authors

Daniel A. Cox is the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in survey research, politics, youth culture and identity, and religion.

Ryan Streeter is the director of Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he oversees research in education, American citizenship, poverty studies, and economics.

Samuel J. Abrams is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on questions related to civic and political culture and American ideologies.

Jacqueline Clemence is a research associate at the Survey Center on American Life and in politics and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on compiling survey research, analyzing public opinion, and coordinating survey projects.

Notes

[1] The broad racial and ethnic groupings used in this analysis do not distinguish important differences based on nationality and culture among Hispanic and Asian respondents.

[2] NORC at the University of Chicago, “General Social Survey (GSS),” https://www.norc.org/Research/Projects/Pages/general-social-survey.aspx

[3] Vasja Manfreda et al., “Collecting Ego-Centred Network Data Via the Web,” Metodolski zvezki 1, no. 2, (2004): 295–321, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228693912_Collecting_ego-centred_network_data_via_the_Web. Note that online-administered surveys offer a comparative advantage in collecting social network data. “Compared to face-to-face or telephone interviews, Web data collection can substantially reduce the costs, time, and fatigue in managing the complex questionnaire required for data collection of ego-centered data.”

[4] Consistent with previous work that identified greater measurement error and response bias associated with telephone interviewing, see Linchiat Chang and Jon A. Krosnick, “National Surveys Via RDD Telephone Interviewing Versus the Internet: Comparing Sample Representativeness and Response Quality,” Public Opinion Quarterly (2009): 1–38, https://pprg.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2009_poq_chang.pdf. Anthony Paik and Kenneth Sanchagrin found evidence in the General Social Survey social network data of interviewer measurement error resulting from fatigue and lack of training. See Anthony Paik and Kenneth Sanchagrin, “Social Isolation in America: An Artifact,” American Sociological Review (April 2013), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122413482919.

[5] In 2013, the survey question differed modestly, asking respondents to identify people with whom they “discussed important matters.” The new version included slightly different construction: Identify people with whom they “discussed important personal matters or concerns.” See Daniel A. Cox, Juhem Navarro-Rivera, and Robert P. Jones, “Race, Religion, and Political Affiliation of Americans’ Core Social Networks,” Public Religion Research Institute, August 3, 2016, https://www.prri.org/research/poll-race-religion-politics-americans-social-networks/.

[6] Age is closely associated with various factors, such as marital status, which are strongly correlated with sociability and social network size.

[7] The broad racial and ethnic groupings used in this analysis do not distinguish important differences based on nationality and culture among Hispanic and Asian respondents.

[8] Cox, Navarro-Rivera, and Jones, “Race, Religion, and Political Affiliation of Americans’ Core Social Networks.”

[9] Pew Research Center, “Swing Voters Slow to Decide, Still Cross-Pressured,” October 27, 2004, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2004/10/27/swing-voters-slow-to-decide-still-cross-pressured/.

[10] In part, the variation in the strength of the relationship may be explained by Republicans with politically homogeneous networks having lower levels of education than those with diverse networks do. This same pattern is not evident among Democrats. Despite this, a logistic regression model predicting political self-doubts shows that even when controlling for education, the political composition of social networks strongly affects feelings of political certainty.

[11] See Topline Questionnaire for more details.

[12] Pew Research Center, “More Now Say It’s ‘Stressful’ to Discuss Politics with People They Disagree with,” November 5, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/11/05/more-now-say-its-stressful-to-discuss-politics-with-people-they-disagree-with/.

[13] See Topline Questionnaire for more details.

[14] Pew Research Center, “Public Highly Critical of State of Political Discourse in the U.S.,” June 19, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/06/19/public-highly-critical-of-state-of-political-discourse-in-the-u-s/.

[15] Americans who believe someone’s politics says a lot about their character are more likely to feel stressed or frustrated when talking to their political opponents than are those who do not think someone’s political views say much about them (62 percent vs. 49 percent).

[16] See Topline Questionnaire for more details.

[17] Pew Research Center, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” June 12, 2014, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/section-3-political-polarization-and-personal-life/.

[18] Samuel J. Abrams et al., “AEI Survey on Community and Society: Social Capital, Civic Health, and Quality of Life in the United States,” American Enterprise Institute, February 5, 2019, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/aei-survey-on-community-and-society-social-capital-civic-health-and-quality-of-life-in-the-united-states/.

[19] Abrams et al., “AEI Survey on Community and Society.”

[20] Due to sample size limitations, black and Hispanic respondents were combined for this analysis. The overall pattern is similar across both groups.

[21] In 2017, 58 percent of Americans said that Confederate monuments were symbols of southern pride more than symbols of racism.

[22] See Topline Questionnaire for more details.

[23] ABC News, “ABC News Poll: June 2000,” Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 2000.

Survey Methodology

The survey was designed and conducted by the American Enterprise Institute. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 4,067 adults (age 18 and older) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Interviews were conducted both online using a self-administered design and by telephone using live interviewers. All interviews were conducted among participants using a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the national US adult population run by NORC at the University of Chicago. Interviewing was conducted between July 31 and August 11, 2020.

Weighting was accomplished in two separate stages. First, panel base weights were calculated for every household based on the probability of selection from the NORC National Frame, the sampling frame that is used to sample housing units for AmeriSpeak.[i] Household level weights were then assigned to each eligible adult in every recruited household. In the second stage, sample demographics were balanced to match target population parameters for gender, age, education, race and Hispanic ethnicity, division (US Census definitions), housing type, and telephone usage. The telephone usage parameter came from an analysis of the National Health Interview Survey. All other weighting parameters were derived from an analysis of the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables. Weights were trimmed to prevent individual interviews from having too much influence on the results.

The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population. The margin of error for the survey is +/– 2.0 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.83.


[i] The National Frame is representative of over 97 percent of US households and includes additional coverage of hard-to-survey population segments, such as rural and low-income households, that are underrepresented in other sample frames. AmeriSpeak uses US mail notifications, NORC telephone interviewers, and in-person field interviewers to recruit panel households.

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